Maury Wills, who died this week at 89, came out of the District as maybe the greatest athlete from this city who impacted the game of baseball when he set the basepaths on fire as a record-setting Most Valuable Player for the Los Angeles Dodgers.
He found that path in his life thanks to a former Washington Senators second baseman. It is that path that perhaps is the most interesting part of his life.
There’s a should-be Hall of Fame (another oversight by voters) career on Wills’ resume — including 104 stolen bases in his National League MVP season in 1962, three World Series titles (1959, 1963, 1965) with the Los Angeles Dodgers and seven All-Star Game appearances.
One of those games was back home in Washington in 1962, before which he was initially refused entry to the stadium by a security guard who didn’t believe he was a ballplayer. “Get out of here, boy, you’re not a ballplayer,” the guard told Wills. “You’re too little.”
Nearly 20 years earlier, Wills was a kid growing up in the housing projects in the District. He was one of 13 children living in public housing. There wasn’t much hope around his neighborhood.
But then, one day, 11-year-old Maury Wills went to a baseball clinic sponsored by the Washington Senators, and it changed his life.
“We used to do those clinics for the Dodgers,” Wills told me in a conversation for my “Cigars & Curveballs” podcast. “The players really didn’t want to be there. The team would tell us, ‘You don’t have to stay long, just wing it if you have to and get out of there.”
Jerry Priddy, who played for the Senators in 1943 and again in 1946 and 1947 after World War II, didn’t wing it or get out of there.
“Well, if they told us that in the 1960s, I can imagine what they must have said to Jerry Priddy in the 1940s, coming out to our all-Black housing projects in northern Washington,” Wills said.
Priddy stayed for two hours talking to those kids — one in particular.
“He looked us right in the eyes as he talked to us,” Wills said. “I remember him looking at me and picking me out to catch a ground ball. He said, ‘Watch this boy here. He does it right.’ I took my little crow hop and threw the ball to him and I popped his mitt. He was impressed. He said, ‘Son, that’s good. Where did you learn that?’ I said, ‘I don’t know.’ He said, ‘That’s amazing. You keep playing because you have a chance to be a good baseball player one day.’”
“From that moment on, I had a direction in life,” Wills said. “Before that, I got to school just on time, maybe a little bit late at times. I didn’t do my homework the way I should have done it. After Jerry Priddy said that to me, I was on time for school. My folks didn’t have to roust me out of bed to get ready to go to school.”
He was a star quarterback at Cardozo High School, but baseball became his love.
“I continued to play baseball and I started playing with older players,” Wills said. “I started playing with grown men who called themselves semi-pro. I played on weekends. They were a bunch of alcoholics. They’d have a half pint of whiskey in their back pockets as they were playing. The baseball uniform pocket is perfect for a half pint of whiskey.
“They learned to slide in a way so they wouldn’t break that bottle of whiskey in their back pocket. I learned to slide just like them. That slide came from the old Negro Leagues, and I grew up learning how to do that. That’s the slide I took into Major League Baseball. I can’t tell you how many times the throw might have gotten there at the same time or before. But I had that hook slide I learned in the projects as a 15-year-old with these older men who called themselves semi-pro. The second baseman would catch the ball, but when he went to tag me, I wasn’t there. It worked for me.”
How well did it work? In his record-setting 104 stolen base season, Wills was only caught 13 times.
Wills would be discovered by the Dodgers at a Major League Baseball clinic at Griffith Stadium.
“Those older men, with their half pint of whiskey bottles in their pockets, gathered me up and took me up there,” he said. “There were about 300 or 400 kids there. They gave us all a number and had us sit in the stands to be called. It took so long that they made the announcement that camp was over and no more kids were going to be watched. I hadn’t gotten a chance yet.”
Those men who had brought Wills to the clinic refused to take no for an answer. He impressed the scouts enough to get another look at their next tryout camp. A Dodgers scout later showed up at Wills’ home and signed him.
He left, but never left the District behind. There has been the annual Maury Wills Cardozo Baseball clinic at Banneker High School, where the baseball field is named after Wills. For every ballplayer who attends a clinic at Maury Wills Field and other baseball diamonds, his story should be required reading.
You can hear Thom Loverro on The Kevin Sheehan Show podcast.